Visiting the People’s Republic of Poland
by Mark Wegierski
The founding date of the People’s Republic of Poland (Polish acronym: PRL) is considered to be July 22, 1944, when the so-called Lublin Manifesto was issued. The PRL in its foundation and early years was the savage imposition of Soviet Communism on an unwilling Polish nation. Over a 100,000 Poles died resisting this imposition, during a vicious conflict that raged until 1949.
However, the death of Stalin in 1953 led to an eventual liberalization of the regime in 1956, during the so-called Polish October. Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had been briefly jailed by the Stalinists in the earlier period, became First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party (Polish acronym: PZPR) – the main Communist party. He inaugurated the period known as “The Thaw”, essentially “polonizing” the regime, and moving it away from the harsh totalitarianism of the Stalinist period.
As a result of the disturbances of the 1968-1970 period, Edward Gierek came to power as First Secretary of the PZPR. He inaugurated a period of cultural and economic liberalization that even decades later is sometimes dubbed “the golden years of Gierek”. Gierek used Western loans to build up the economy, with Poland becoming the tenth greatest industrial power in the world. There was also a quickening of culture, with a world-acclaimed Polish cinema and theatre. Gierek initiated an outreach to Polish communities abroad, notably in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Young Polish-Americans and Polish-Canadians were encouraged to travel to Poland and discover their Polish roots. The extent of this outreach has never been matched by any subsequent Polish governments. There was also an emphasis on native Slavic themes in art, as well as on Polish folk-culture, in all its splendid regional variety, including song, dance, and the decorative arts.
I was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, of Polish immigrant parents. My parents made a concerted effort to introduce me to “Polishness”. For example, I attended the Polish (Saturday) School from 1968. In June 1974, I achieved a Graduation Diploma (Grade 8) of the Tadeusz Kosciuszko (Saturday) Polish School (Toronto), Polish Alliance of Canada.
I visited Poland a number of times in the 1970s. In the summer of 1975, I completed a Polish Ethnography Study Program (235 hours/college level) based in Kielce, Poland, for which I received a Diploma. Although I was only in my mid-teens, I was able to meaningfully participate in the studies, being fluent in Polish. The studies encompassed a rich program, with numerous trips to different historic towns and cities in Poland. Simple but good meals and accommodation were provided for the students throughout the program. Most of the students were Polish-Americans in their late teens and twenties.
Also, in August 1975, I received an Honorary Diploma for Participation in the First Polish Poetry and Prose Dramatic Recital Festival for Persons of Polish Descent Living Abroad, held in Torun, Poland. There was an emphasis on dramatic recital as an art form, both in Poland and in the Polish communities abroad. The Festival also included trips to numerous historic towns and cities in Poland.
I travelled to Poland in 1977, to Torun once again. In August 1977, I received a Diploma of Recognition for Propagating the Beauty of the Polish Language and literature, at the Second Polish Poetry and Prose Dramatic Recital Festival for persons of Polish descent living abroad.
By this time the Gierek “economic miracle” was beginning to turn sour. There had been ominous disturbances in Radom in 1976. After the election of the Polish Pope in 1978, the appetite of Poles for the truth became palpable. The emergence of Solidarity, an independent trade union movement, caught the regime off guard. It reached an agreement with Solidarity on August 31, 1980. There was a brief period of freedom in 1980-1981 but Communist General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on December 13th 1981 and suppressed Solidarity by force. I felt no inclination to travel to Poland at this time.
In early 1989, the Communists held talks with Solidarity at the so-called Round Table. In the semi-free election of June 4th 1989, the nation voted overwhelmingly for the Solidarity list. Within a few years the PRL was dissolved and the Third Polish Republic was proclaimed.
Nevertheless, former Communists held the Presidency of the Third Polish Republic from 1995-2005 and dominated the Parliament for most of the period up to 2005. The patriotic Olszewski government was brought down in 1992 by the intervention of Lech Walesa, who had been elected President in 1990.
For a variety of reasons, I only returned to Poland in 2002, after a hiatus of twenty-five years.